Can you choose to believe something?

by Matt Slick

Sometimes people will say that it is not possible to choose something to believe in, that our beliefs are determined by what we are and what we know.  They say that we can't just make ourselves believe whatever we want to believe.  For example, if the sky is blue we can't make ourselves believe it is green. We are forced to believe in the truth that it is blue. So, we really can't choose our beliefs.

While this makes sense, is not entirely accurate.  Let's say that you have a friend who tells you a story about what happened to him on the previous day? He begins by conveying a series of events that you find interesting and believable. But, the more you listen, the more you realize there are problems with his story. Pretty soon he contradicts himself on some key facts. What do you do then? Do you choose to continue to believe or do you choose not to believe the story?  Your choice would depend on what the facts were, how the contradictions related to the story, the trustworthiness of your friend, etc. You might weigh each of these and then make a decision on whether not to believe his story. 

Proof or not proof?

Must we prove everything in order to believe it? Must we prove before we drive our cars that the person approaching us from the opposite direction will not swerve into our lane before we get in our vehicles and start the motor? How would you prove it before hand? You can't. Yet, you will choose to believe that he won't without proof, and you put your life on the line, nonetheless.

But you might say that your belief that the oncoming driver will not swerve into you is based on past evidence where it has never happened before and that it is reasonable to assume that the driver does not want to swerve into your car any more than you want to swerve into his. Therefore, you conclude that you will be safe. But this is just the point. You are choosing to believe in your own safety without proof. You weigh the evidence and then making a decision. In this case, you consciously choose to believe you will be safe. Therefore, you choose to believe something based on the evidence.

Coincidentally, this is the kind of belief that Jesus taught.  there is the case ofThomas, one of his disciples, who refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. He said he would not believe unless Jesus appeared to him.

John 20:25-29, "So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he [Thomas] said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” 26 After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” 28 Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus *said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

Whether or not you believe the account is recorded in the Scriptures, Jesus taught that a person can make a decision to believe something based on the evidence.

Can you force yourself to believe?

Let's say that you look into the sky and see that it is blue, yet a friend of yours looks into the sky and says that it is green. He says you should believe him at the sky is green. he wants you to force yourself to believe.  But when you look back to the sky and you see that it is blue, you realize you cannot simply choose to believe the sky is green. After all, it is blue. You cannot choose to believe something that you know is contrary to the truth.  This is rational and good. We ought not believe in things we know are not true. In fact, we should not believe in something we know is self-refuting.

What if you can't choose to believe anything?

Some say that we don't have the ability to choose what we believe. We must believe what we must believe. But, if that is the case, then they are saying we don't have any choice in what we believe. We are caused to believe certain things because we see the issues, weigh the facts, and make decisions.  But, basically, our beliefs are necessary outcomes to what we see and know.  But, if that is the case, then we cannot know if what we believe is true or not. Let me explain.

If we are essentially forced to believe things and cannot choose to believe anything, then it is irrelevant whether that which we believe in is true or false. We believe because were forced to believe, not because we weigh the evidence, apply logic, and choose to believe something.  Furthermore, it would mean that the position that "we don't have the ability to choose what we believe" can't be shown to be true - because we're forced to believe it regardless of its truth value.  since we cannot show it to be true, we cannot rely on the statement "we don't have the ability to choose what we believe." Essentially, the position refutes itself. It refutes itself, then we ought not believe it. In fact, we should choose not to believe it's true. But if we choose to believe it's not true, then we are choosing to believe that we can choose to believe.


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.